Often for me the holiday season is a time of remembering. Such was the case when my daughter, Rose Morningstar, recently sent me a digital video of a virtuoso harmonica performance by Buddy Greene at Carnegie Hall (please see embedded video below and if it takes a bit to load and play it is worth your patience). As I told my daughter "Mr Greene takes me back many years to when I was a young man - 1974 on the Olympic Peninsula. " We lived next door to the Lake Quinault, North Shore, Olympic National Park Ranger Station on Amundi Creek. It was a period of my life when I was doing a lot of mountaineering and the Olympics were a grand place to do so.
In 1938 President Franklin Roosevelt signed legislation creating this national park. In the process there was quite a bit of local resistance against the formation of the park. Illegal logging, poaching, & squatting continued long into the latter part of last century. In part due to local resistance to the establishment of the park, a number of in-holdings of private property were surveyed into the over-all park boundary. It was on one of these in-holdings, high above the Quinault river valley, far off the grid where I met Luther Clark. Luther was an old WWI vet. If I remember correctly he told me he was the same age as the year. That would have made him 14 when the war broke out. Like many young males of his time Luther lied about his age and within a couple of years found himself in the trenches of Europe. But that is not what this story is really about. Let me summarize to say while overseas Luther learned how to play harmonica.
To bring this back into perspective I'll mention my introduction to Luther Clark. Word had it he was a tough, old fella'. Living alone, deep in the foothills of this vast, coastal mountain range, in the most prolific rain forest of the continental United States (receiving over 150 inches of rain annually). Luther had no electricity. Oil lamps were his only night lights. Running water consisted of one of the many streams flowing out of these unique mountains. His cabin was a combination of rough, hand hewn logs with scabbed together scrap & salvaged lumber and hand split, moss covered, cedar shakes. His pick-up truck was in a semi-cinstant state of disrepair, and his contact with the outside world was with people like the guy who took me up there for the first time, "just to check on the old fart and see if he's still alive".
In the early 70's you could still purchase a gallon jug of tap beer from the Quinault tavern if you supplied the jug - cost, $1.00. We had several in the back of our truck as Luther was fond of beer. Indeed Luther was a hard edged, cantankerous, and crusty old vet. While he didn't seem very fond of our company, interrupting his busy day as we were, he did enjoy the beer. The guy who I rode with had a guitar and knew Luther enjoyed hearing music. So he played. After a couple of songs my friend asked if I had my 'harp' with me (blues nomenclature for harmonica). I did and when it came out of my fatigue pocket Luther's interest noticeably picked up. I've been a fair player since finding myself in the company of harmonicas in the late 60's. And we whipped out a couple of contemporary blues tunes (since neither of us knew any thing else). A pause for a sip from the jug and Luther asks me, "Whatcha' got there?" pointing to the harp in my hand.
"A harmonica," I said thinking I was answering his question.
"Why you dumb little @*%$," he exclaimed cussing like a soldier in the trenches. "I know what a @&$#ing harmonica is. What key is it? Whats the brand?"
Well it turns out Luther wants to play my harp. Now this isn't like passing a guitar around the room. A harmonica is something that gets full of saliva, spittle and, well you get the picture. Hesitantly I agreed. Luther looked the harmonicia over closely, reading the embossed brand & notations. He played his way up and down the scales for a moment, then paused. He took a deep breath... The repertoire he launched into dropped the jaws of both myself and the guitarist. Luther played the most beautiful classical music on this cheap little blues harp. I was dumbfounded. Never before had I heard such sounds come from a harmonica. Mr. Clark must have played three or four numbers and when he was done he started to hand the harp back to me.
"It is yours," I said, still a bit dazzled from what I had just heard.
No it isn't," Luther argued, "it belongs to you."
"If I could play it like you do it would be mine. It is yours," I told him again. I can't remember how long we argued about the ownership of the harp but when I left the harp stayed. I took with me a much bigger gift than that of the harmonica. A memory of an amazing man, and fantastic music in such an unlikely place. A memory that was so recently triggered in me by the video which follows...
I hope you deeply enjoy your gift giving this month...